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8 Genre-Blending Nonfiction Books You Need To Read

Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

Flatiron Books, publisher of The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

Set in the Spanish Golden Age, during a time of high‑stakes political intrigue and glittering wealth, The Familiar follows Luzia, a servant in the household of an impoverished Spanish nobleman who reveals a talent for little miracles. Her social‑climbing mistress demands Luzia use her gifts to win over Madrid’s most powerful players but what begins as simple amusement takes a dangerous turn. Luzia will need to use every bit of her wit and will to survive—even the help of Guillén Santángel, an immortal familiar whose own secrets could prove deadly for them both. The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo is on sale now.

Look, I will tell it to you plain: genre-blending nonfiction is where it’s at. Sure, I enjoy the occasional autobiography. I like an essay collection about pop culture. I’m down with investigative journalism and nonfiction about nature. I like to learn things via books. But what I truly love, more than all of that, is nonfiction that messes with genre and defies categorization. This is where all the most interesting, most world-opening, most deliciously thorny stuff is happening. This is where I go when I want a challenge, when I want a book that will shake me up or offer me a new way to look at the world. Genre-blending nonfiction gives me all of this and more.

Memoirs that aren’t just memoirs. Essay collections that are both academic and deeply personal. Food writing that is also literary criticism. Science writing that is also family history. History that is also poetry. Poetry that is a little bit fiction and a little bit not. You might never have considered the connections between cycling and feminism, but Tree Abraham has. I’d certainly never thought about the resonance between deep sea vents and queer community, but Sabrina Imbler has. There are so many ways that nonfiction writers blend and twist genre into beautiful new shapes. These books represent just eight of those ways, and they’re all brilliant.

Cover of Cyclettes

Cyclettes by Tree Abraham

If I had to pick a genre for this book, it would be “bikes.” Abraham investigates bikes and bicycles from just about every angle. It’s a blend of memoir, travelogue, history, how-to, and photo journal. It includes maps of memorable rides, snippets of philosophy, instructions for dealing with various bike-related problems, and mini-essays on everything from women’s suffrage to the mechanics of gears. It’s inventive, fun, and, for a book about such a niche topic, surprisingly far-ranging.

cover of Falling Back in Love with Being Human

Falling Back in Love With Being Human by Kai Cheng Thom

This wise and tender book feels like the sort of thing only Kai Cheng Thom could write. She draws on her experiences as an artist, healer, mediator, and community activist to offer an expansive blueprint for living and loving in a broken world. In letters to old friends, ex-lovers, famous transphobes, and past versions of herself, she explores grief, forgiveness, and grace. Interspersed between the letters are short prompts and exercises intended for the reader. It’s a book that can be read in nearly infinite ways: as self-help, as poetry, as memoir, as spiritual teacher, as all of the above.

Indigiqueerness by Joshua Whitehead book cover

Indigiqueerness by Joshua Whitehead, with Angie Abdou

This is a short book (under 100 pages), and yet somehow, Whitehead packs in about 20 different genres. At times it feels like a mini-biography of his own books and publishing history. At other times, it’s more like an expansive lecture on creative writing. But, it’s also a book about Indigenous language, translation, and storytelling. Blending interview, memoir, photography, collage, and the words of other writers and thinkers, it’s a little book that will leave you with a lot to think about.

Cover of Small Fires

Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson

When was the last time you really thought about a recipe? Have you ever considered recipes as more than mere lists of instructions — as art forms, epic poems, histories, or archives of personal and collective memory? I guarantee that you will never look at recipes the same way again after reading this book. Johnson explodes the genre of food writing by giving recipes, cookery, and domestic work the rigorous study and attention they deserve. This book is a heady and delicious mix of literary criticism, feminist scholarship, social and cultural critique, personal memoir, and mouthwatering descriptions.

bad indians book cover

Bad Indians by Deborah A. Miranda

Have you ever had the experience where a book comes highly recommended from several trusted sources, and then you finally read it and it’s even better than they said? That’s what happened to me with this book. It’s the kind of memoir/history/collection of poems/reinvention of storytelling that makes me grateful beyond words to be a reader. Miranda traces her own complicated family history alongside the histories of genocide and colonialism and Indigenous resistance in California. The result is something that breaks open the world.

Book cover of How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

If you’re looking for a brilliant blend of two distinct genres, this is your book: each essay is a braid of science writing and memoir. Imbler writes about gender, mixed race identity, family history, queer bars, past relationships, and more. But alongside these personal recollections and reflections are gorgeous meditations on sea creatures and phenomena, from jellyfish to Chinese sturgeon to whale falls.

A graphic of the cover of Exile and Pride

Exile & Pride by Eli Clare

This is a book I will never stop recommending. Like Imbler, Clare stretches and expands nature writing, braiding it together with queer and disability history and scholarship. He blends the academic and the poetic better than just about any other writer I can think of. This is a raw and intimate memoir about surviving trauma and a rigorous study of the interlocking systems of oppression that lead to environmental degradation, sexual violence, and ableism. It’s full of lush descriptions and exacting citations.

Cover of West

West: A Translation by Paisley Rekdal

A lot of poetry plays with and blends genre, but this book is one of the most innovative and creative collections I’ve read in a long time. In these interconnected poems, Rekdal explores the history of two events that had (and continue to have) massive impacts on the United States: the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The poems themselves are part translation, part retelling of an anonymous poem written on the wall of Angel Island Immigration Station. But, the poems are just the beginning of this remarkable book, which also includes footnote-essays, photographs, and historical documents.

Looking for more genre-blending nonfiction? Check out this great list of some of the best genre-blending nonfiction from 2021. You also might be interested in what I like to call “the messay” (memoir + essay + mess).